The flu is a smart virus — it’s constantly changing and adapting, rewriting its genetic code to better invade our bodies. That’s why millions of people who get flu vaccines every year still get sick.
But researchers from the University of Washington are working on an answer: A “universal” flu vaccine that uses cutting-edge technology to attack parts of the virus that stay constant every year, potentially making it vastly more effective at preventing the disease.
The new technology is detailed in a study published Thursday and its head researcher, UW Medicine researcher Deborah Fuller, said it has the potential to completely change how we prevent all kinds of the flu. The vaccine must undergo more testing before it could be available to the public.
Fuller said a big challenge with the flu is its genetic drift, or how its genes change and evolve over time. Current flu vaccines target an easy-to-access part of the flu virus, but because the vaccines take so long to produce, scientists must guess at what the flu and its genes will look like nine months before the season starts.
“In that nine months, it could completely change,” Fuller said. “Even a few mutations means the vaccine will be less effective.”
The virus can also undergo genetic shifts, major changes in its genes. That was the case in 2009, when a new strain of flu that originated in pigs caused a pandemic. The Swine Flu strain had a completely different set of genes, meaning that none of the available flu vaccines worked on it.
Fuller and her team took a different approach.
“We designed a vaccine based on what was known to be very conserved sequences,” meaning genes that don’t change from year to year, she said. Those genes are harder to access but remain constant.
In the new study — led by Merika Treants Koday, a member of Fuller’s lab — the vaccine was developed using one version of the flu and then tested on non-human primates using another version. Fuller said her team gave the primates the vaccine then exposed them to the Swine Flu strain.
“We challenged the monkeys with that and we saw protection from the disease and more rapid resolution of the infection in these monkeys,” she said. In a nutshell, the vaccine protected many of the animals from getting sick and those who did contract the flu got less sick than they would have otherwise.
Along with its new approach, the vaccine also uses an emerging technology called a DNA vaccine. That means the vaccine sends DNA straight into a person’s cells, basically building the vaccine inside their own body.
“The idea here is that you can take genetic material from any pathogen — virus or bacteria — and very quickly design a vaccine based solely on the genetic material,” Fuller said.
Fuller said the DNA vaccine is much easier and quicker to produce, so it can react to new flu strains as they emerge. It can also be delivered with a virtually painless injection just below the skin.
The idea of DNA vaccines dates back to the 1990s, but only recently have scientists found a way to deliver the DNA effectively. Fuller’s team invented what’s called a gene gun for that task: It sends microparticles storing DNA into a person’s cells to create the vaccine.
Fuller said the technology will march onward into clinical testing in humans. It is being further developed and monetized by a biotech startup called Orlence that she co-founded with a collaborator, Jim Mullins.
“The goal it to take the gene gun technology that was formed and was so effective and engineer a clinical version of that device so we can take this vaccine into phase 1 clinical trials,” Fuller said.